The work we do is hard, but some days are extra tough.
Days like Monday when I attended the funeral of the dad of four students enrolled in our afterschool program.
I've been through a lot of hard things in my life. I had a tough childhood. Neglect, abuse, and abandonment left scars that both wounded and gave me the fortitude to face hardship and persevere through painfully hard situations.
20 years of ministry to orphans and vulnerable children meant I've faced the worst the world offers, and it has caused me to develop a framework for walking through suffering while believing and trusting in God.
Coming to the understanding that a God who is all-loving, all-powerful, all-wise, and has a view of eternity, can permit, allow, or possibly ordain things that we in our finite mind can only see as bad or evil in the present moment and our limited view of life, is part of a foundational framework I rely on not just for processing my own journey, but while walking alongside those who suffer.
Yet as I walked into the church and saw the faces of our students, sad, teary-eyed, and lost, it broke me. When they threw their arms around our teachers, and one of them whispered, "I don't want my daddy to be gone." My inner strength failed, and it was all I could do to keep from weeping along with them.
My faith wasn't shaken, my trust in God didn't waver, and I didn't doubt my understanding of how God could allow this to happen to these children. I simply saw and emphasized their pain. While I didn't lose my parents to death, I experienced profound loss in my childhood when my mom left my father because of his alcoholism when I was five. Later, she left me in the care of others for a year when I was 9. While not the same as the finality of death, I know what it is like to long for a parent and believe you will never see them again.
For these children, the loss of their father was compounded by the fact that they had lost their mother through childbirth and had been in the care of their aunt.
I knew intellectually, theologically, and personally how God could allow this. I knew that someday, it might be possible for these children to come to terms with it as well. But I also knew the journey from here to there would be long, hard, and filled with tears. It wasn't going to be easy for this family to survive. While our afterschool programs play a vital role in the lives of these children, with needs this big, the problem was bigger than us.
Housing, food, clothing, and schooling were hard enough when the father was there to help. By all accounts, he wasn't exactly a stand-up fellow. But he helped pay rent for the room they lived in and provided some money for food. But to children who love their parents, such failings often don't matter much when you are young. Your father is your father. You love them and assume they love you, and having that ripped away hurts.
Shortly before the children's mother passed away at the birth of the youngest child six years ago, she asked her sister to care for her children if she didn't make it through childbirth as she knew her husband wasn't up to the task.
The aunt is a wonderful person who took in her three nephews and niece despite having two small children of her own. A decision that ended up costing her immensely as her husband used it as an excuse to leave, saying he didn't want to feed and provide for the extra mouths that weren't his.
Their aunt has done an amazing job loving and caring for the six children in her care. She makes sure the children get to school on time and to the afterschool programs at Cadaniño every day, keeps them fed and ensures their faces are clean and hair is neatly done even if their clothes have holes.
But the little she earns through her work every day going door to door washing people's clothes for whatever they would pay would not be enough to make ends meet.
I had some very real moments of anguish as I stood in church wondering, "How is this going to work?" and "Who is going to help her?"
But little by little, I began to see God at work.
I saw how the children were comforted by our teachers and wanted to be hugged and held by them. I heard the pastor encourage the aunt that she was not alone and watched as people raised their hands, answering his call, to commit to being there to serve this family. I was touched by the offering that was collected for her and how people emptied their pockets of whatever they had to help the family in their time of need.
I also heard a continual message of hope, repentance, and salvation, first from the relatives of the man who died, how they knew he was in heaven, then from a visiting Guatemalan missionary who gave an altar call in the cemetery, and finally from the mother, who challenged all her dead son's friends to turn away from a life sin and give their hearts to God.
I was asked to speak, and even though my heart was heavy, I read the poem "Footsteps in the Sand," which shares how in our darkest moments, even when we might feel alone, Jesus is there to carry us.
As we left the cemetery, it became clearer to me how God was present amid the suffering. He was there through us and the other believers that gathered together as the living church of God to wrap around this family.
He was there in the hugs and encouragement of our teachers and how they cared for the children. He was there in the pastor who challenged people to help. He was there in the people who responded and committed to serving them.
He was there in the hands and hearts of every one of us.
In the days since the funeral, it has been encouraging to see how God continues to provide for this family. The family was able to find an "apartment" to rent. Really, it's just two rooms with a bathroom and patio, but it's private, and they don't have to share it with anyone. But it's incredibly difficult to find a place like this in the neighborhood, and many people won't rent to families with kids.
Friends and donors of Cadaniño reached out to help us. We furnished the place with beds, bedding, dressers, kitchen and dining room furniture, and a fridge. Cadaniño will continue to provide essential food supplies for the immediate future, so no one goes hungry.
The aunt's mother moved in to help, and though she doesn't make much, she has a job that will help them cover the rent for now.
We haven't by any means fixed everything. The children will still cry and long for a father they no longer have. The aunt will still struggle to meet the needs of six children under 13 while living in a dangerous part of town.
I don't have the answers to all these things, and I don't know it will all play out, but I don't have to. At this moment I can clearly see how God is present with this family in their time of trial and how Jesus is carrying her through the hands of each of us and I have every reason to trust that He will continue to do so.
So where is God in the midst of suffering? In the hands and hearts of each and every one of His children as we answer the call to step up and serve those who are at this moment walking through their "valley of the shadow of death," showing them, with our actions, that they are not alone, but that the Lord is with them.
One thing that was especially touching was that the dad who passed away had attended the Cadaniño Father's Day outreach a few days prior. Part of the event was fathers and children working together to build a corn hole set they could take home. The fact that we could help create one last memory for these children with their dad before he passed away was beautiful.
Partner with Cadaniño and help us serve families like this one!